Even in the midst of a nuclear crisis that has frightened the world, Roger Barrett refuses to see North Korea as a member of the "axis of evil." He touts it, instead, as something better: the next Asian Tiger.
The 48-year-old British businessman is the leader of a hardy band of Western investors who see this bizarre socialist country as the Next Big Thing. He admits he is sometimes called an apologist, but he seems genuinely convinced that the North Korean economy is poised to take off -- and much faster than most people expect.
It has to be one of the weirdest of the world's emerging markets. North Korea remains, to a large extent, an Orwellian totalitarian state. Even among the small number of investors who have ventured into the country in recent years, most are so nervous that they keep their activities hidden from the media. Few are willing to disclose their investments.
Conditions can be crudely basic. One of Mr. Barrett's colleagues has some stark advice for anyone thinking of doing business in North Korea. First, bring a flashlight and a compass. Talk to your business partners on the street, where nobody can eavesdrop. And when you pay your employees, supplement their wages with rice or meat -- they will be grateful.
The obstacles in North Korea are formidable. Energy shortages are so severe that electricity blackouts are common. Private advertising is prohibited. The currency is not convertible. The consumer class is almost non-existent. The government is isolated. The bureaucracy is notoriously rigid and secretive. Much of its technology is decades behind its neighbours. E-mail and cellphones weren't even available until a year ago. And despite the reforms, much of the North Korean population is teetering on the brink of starvation.
Yet none of this discourages Mr. Barrett, a veteran Asian businessman who travels five or six times a year to Pyongyang, where his consulting firm has set up a branch office.
As the managing director of Korea Business Consultants, he has specialized in North Korea for the past six years, based mostly in an office near the North Korean embassy in Beijing. He is also deputy managing director of Kumsan Joint Venture Co., half-owned by a Singapore investment group, which expects to produce 20,000 to 30,000 ounces of gold annually from a North Korean gold mine.
He rattles off a long list of arguments in favour of optimism, including Pyongyang's recent capitalist reforms, its new quasi-free farmer's markets, its planned industrial park at Kaesong near the South Korean border, its abundant mineral resources, its educated work force, its increasingly pro-investment attitude, and its expanding economic contacts with China and South Korea.
Mr. Barrett estimates 40 to 50 Western firms "operating under the radar" make profits from investments in North Korea -- though he declines to identify any of them.
"I've seen attitudes changing at all levels of the government," he says. "People just haven't realized that North Korea is absolutely focused on moving forward. It's looking for more foreign contacts on all fronts. There's a buildup of positive factors."
He argues that this is the ideal time for adventurous investors to become pioneers in North Korea, where they can be the first to position themselves to exploit a future boom. "In times of hardship, those who go in early will benefit. They will be remembered as friends in a time of need. The North Koreans are so willing, and it's much easier to negotiate with the willing, rather than those who are already swamped with investment."
Mr. Barrett says he is often accused of excessive enthusiasm about North Korea, but he says it is a useful antidote to what he sees as the excessive negativism of the media portrait of North Korea.
He admits, however, that the nuclear crisis, which began more than a year ago when North Korea announced it was developing nuclear weapons, is wreaking significant damage on the business climate. "The investment climate is so negatively affected because people think there's more of a risk of war," he said. "But I regard it as temporary, because of China's determination for the diplomatic peace talks to succeed."
As for the Asian Tiger prediction, he refuses to back down. "It could happen and I think it will," he says. "I'm personally excited by the coming year. I think it will see a lot of progress."
If that happens, Canadian firms could be in a good position to invest, he says. Some of the best potential in North Korea is in sectors where Canada has long enjoyed experience and expertise: mining, fisheries, forestry, agriculture and energy. "Canada is well poised to work with North Korea," he says.